by Stacy Kramer, OT Reg. (Ont), Clinical Director at Toronto Children’s Therapy Center

The connection between how we receive and process sensory information, such as touch, and how we perform a physical act, such as handwriting, is not always easy to understand.  The connection between sensory processing and behavior can be even harder to comprehend.

Occupational therapists are trained to investigate difficulties between reception or processing of information and its impact on behavior by looking for clues. Some of these clues, such as balance and motor control, are observable and measurable, while other clues, such as how our brains process touch information, are not as easy to see.   This is accomplished by asking families questions about their child’s response to stimulation in various situations, places, and various times of day.  OT’s then build a sensory profile, which is an overall pattern of how a child is responding to sensory information.  Based on this information OT’s can then provide recommendations and treatment to address these concerns.

Some children might over- or under-respond to certain forms of stimulation.  For instance, within the sense of touch, some children might appear hypersensitive and avoid everyday activities such as being hugged or playing within a group of children.  Other children might appear hyposensitive to touch, and might not notice small scrapes or twisted clothing.  Over-sensitivity to any one form of sensation can set up a pattern of avoidance behavior, expressed by a child by withdrawing or expressing distress during everyday activities.  Under-sensitivity to any one form of sensation can set up a pattern of sensory seeking or craving for that form of input, as seen by a child who can not seem to stop moving or touching.  For these children, the ‘volume’ for any one form of sensation always seems to need to be turned up really high.

For other children, the sensory concern is not in their sensitivity to input, but their ability to process and understand sensation.  For these children, their bodies and their brains have trouble using sensory information effectively to make sense of their world.  For instance, a child with difficulty with touch perception will often have a handwriting deficit – for these children, it is almost as if they are learning to write with a glove on their hands.  Other children might have trouble using sensory information to control the amount of pressure they exert; these children often seem to have a ‘heavy hand’, sometimes breaking toys or hurting others when they mean to use a gentle touch.

Stay tuned for future blogs exploring our five senses (touch, hearing, smell, taste, and vision), plus our extra two ‘body’ senses (vestibular and propioception).  For more information on sensory processing, please check out these links: